Mark your calendar, girl

Ahead of his Tel Aviv concert next month, legendary Top Ten singer Neil Sedaka recalls his rollercoaster rise to stardom.

Neil Sedaka (photo credit: Courtesy)
Neil Sedaka
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Neil Sedaka and controversy aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath.
But ironically enough, almost 50 years after dozens of Top Ten tuneful hits that catapulted the Coney Island teenage son of US Jewish immigrants to the ear-deafening heights of teen idol frenzy as the golden boy of pop music, the 71-year-old Sedaka found himself in a position generally occupied by the likes of metal heads like Ozzy Osbourne.
A July concert kicking off Coney Island’s annual Seaside Summer Concert Series at the Asser Levy Park bandshell turned into a battle between the promoters and local residents, including congregants of two neighborhood synagogues, who claimed the noise level was disruptive. Through the last-minute intervention of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the show was allowed to go on, and Sedaka’s decibel-shattering tunes serenaded the ecstatic concert-goers.
“Oh, right, that whole thing – that got around the world?” Sedaka said, laughing in surprise as he recalled the summer headlines that thrust the ordinarily uncontroversial singer into the middle of a Jewish political turf battle.
“The borough president of Brooklyn had some trouble with the synagogues nearby objecting to the noise level. I wasn’t even sure I was going on until two days before when a court proceeding took place. But fortunately, the show went on, and about 10,000 people showed up. It was very nostalgic for me because I grew up only a few blocks away.”
He was referring to the modest apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he was raised by his father, Mac, a Turkish immigrant- turned Brooklyn taxi driver, and his mother, Eleanor, an Ashkenazi Jew of Polish and Russian descent. There, Sedaka was blanketed in a tranquil, post-World War II Jewish environment, similar to the world comically portrayed by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, perhaps without the rumble of the roller coaster over their living room.
“I thought the whole world was Jewish. I think that our neighborhood was 90 percent Jewish,” said Sedaka, speaking to The Jerusalem Post from New York, ahead of a fall tour that will bring him and his formidable string of pop classics to the Nokia Center in Tel Aviv on October 16 for one show.
“The times were very peaceful in the 1940s in Brighton Beach. We never had to lock our doors, people would drop in for coffee and danish at any time. It was a wonderful kind of naïve, innocent time.”
Aside from having a bar mitzva and attending services on Yom Kippur, Sedaka joined his family in choosing to express his Judaism mainly through cultural channels. He recalled soaking up his heritage as a child, learning Spanish to speak with his paternal grandparents and listening to Yiddish records by the Barry Sisters with his mother.
When the young Sedaka developed an early aptitude for music, his parents worked overtime to pay for a second-hand piano and provide private lessons for the talented grade schooler. When he was nine, he was accepted on a piano scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music’s Preparatory Division for Children, which he attended on Saturdays.
That led to his first encounter at age 13 with his neighbor, Howard Greenfield.
“Howie’s mother heard me playing classical music, and one day she came over and said that her 16-year-old son was a poet and that he’d be coming over to ask me if I wanted to write songs together,” said Sedaka. “I remember the day exactly, October 11, 1952. He knocked at my door and I told him I didn’t know how to write songs and didn’t have any inclination. I’m so glad he convinced me otherwise because we ended up writing over 300 songs together over the next 20 years.”
Not only did the duo write those songs, but most of them became huge hits, performed either by Sedaka in a boyish, high tenor or by a who’s who of pop and rock, including Connie Francis, Frankie Valli, The Monkees and The Captain and Tenille.
BUT IT was the string of Sedaka-sung songs that established him as a clean-cut pop idol in the pre-Beatles late 1950s-early ‘60s musical landscape. “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday, Sweet 16,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” and “You Mean Everything to Me” are just the tip of the Sedaka-Greenfield iceberg that cemented their status as hit makers and as integral members of the mythical Brill Building school of almost exclusively Jewish pop songwriters who dominated the charts in the early 1960s.
“The whole Jewish songwriting experience was a phenomenon because most of us – Carole King, Barry Mann, Mort Shuman, Neil Diamond – were Brooklyn Jews. I don’t know if there was something in the egg creams or the air,” said Sedaka with a chuckle. “You know, many of the Jewish parents encouraged music in the house. They either had to play the violin or the piano. I think it was an inborn thing.”
While Sedaka was overjoyed with his teen success as a songwriter and performer, his parents, intent on his continuing his classical education at Juilliard, were less enthusiastic.
But they began to change their tune when Sedaka started to see the royalties that his songs began to bring in to the family.
“They were very upset at first,” said Sedaka.
“They said, ‘Thousands of people can sing and write songs, but you’re a child prodigy at the piano.’ But after I wrote my first big hit – a song called ‘Stupid Cupid’ for Connie Francis in 1958 when I was 19 – everything changed. We never saw so much money in our lives. I bought my older sister a home, and bought my mother a mink coat. And later I was able to retire my father from driving the taxi. It’s nice to play a Beethoven sonata, I told them, but it’s also nice to get up and travel the world and sing your own songs.”
The string of hits, TV performances and tours continued unabated and, along the way, Sedaka married his high school sweetheart Leba (Strassberg) in 1962 (despite engaging earlier in a public puppy love romance with Carole King that resulted in his writing the song “Oh, Carol” and King responding with “Oh, Neil”).
Then, as befell so many other white male, clean-cut crooners of the era – from Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson to Bobby Vinton and Paul Anka – Beatlemania and the rock revolution made Sedaka obsolete overnight.
“After five years of the hits, the records sales stopped. People would stop me in the street and say, ‘Didn’t you used to be Neil Sedaka?” he recalled. “Of course, it was quite a blow, and it wasn’t pleasant. I was only 23 and had sold about 40 million records around the world. I thought perhaps it was all over.”
Adrift as a performer, at least temporarily, Sedaka fell back on what he knew best – songwriting. Thanks to the fact that his publisher, Aldon Music, was acquired by Screen Gems, his songs kept becoming hits in the late 1960s, appearing on albums by The Monkees, The 5th Dimension and American Beatles soundalikes The Cyrkle.
By the early 1970s, Sedaka was once again attempting to regain a name for himself as a performer, but his career continued to sputter.
Emergences, a 1971 album touted as his comeback, tanked, and Sedaka at one point picked up his family, now including two children, and moved to England. There he recorded another album, Solitaire, whose title song yielded a hit for The Carpenters and Andy Williams and piqued the interest of a surprise benefactor – Elton John, then at the height of his popularity.
“I was still writing all the time, and I felt that there was still much more creativity and work in me. But things didn’t change for me until I met Elton in 1974. He turned out to be a big Neil Sedaka fan, and he signed me to his new record label Rocket Records,” said Sedaka.
The ensuing album, Sedaka’s Back, returned Sedaka to the charts with a vengeance via the hits “Laughter in the Rain” and the upbeat duet with John, “Bad Blood.” And right around the same time, The Captain and Tenille’s version of his song from the Solitaire album “Love Will Keep Us Together” topped the charts worldwide. More than a decade since scoring his last major hit, Sedaka was once again riding high on the charts.
“It was a remarkable comeback for me, going back to number one. I was no longer just an old voice on the radio. I was invited to all the current music programs on television, and people were able to attach a face to the voice,” said Sedaka.
While his resurgence was relatively shortlived and with minor exceptions his hitmaking days were behind him by the end of the decade, the mid-70s comeback reestablished his credibility with a contemporary audience that has resonated until today and has enabled him to tour regularly around the world as one of the legendary rock and pop pioneers. Musicians like Ben Folds cite Sedaka’s tunefulness as a major influence on his work, and American Idol recognized his lifetime contribution by asking him to mentor an episode. Contestant Clay Aiken performed “Solitaire” and ended up recording the song on his debut album and scoring a number one hit with it.
Sedaka said that he appreciated the recognition and cited some of the contemporary performers he keeps up with – “the melodic ones who have intelligible lyrics, like Coldplay, Maroon 5, John Mayer. There are still many people who inspire me,” said Sedaka.
THREE YEARS ago, the 50th anniversary of Sedaka’s musical debut was marked with a gala concert at New York’s Lincoln Center, featuring performers like Aiken, The Captain and Tenille, Natalie Cole and Connie Francis.
In addition, other mantles of recognition bestowed upon Sedaka include induction into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1983.
However, Sedaka’s devoted fans have been irate for years over the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s ignoring the achievements of their hero. A long-standing petition to include Sedaka on next year’s list of nominees has topped 25,000 and has been endorsed by the singer.
“I’ve been on the list for several years. It would certainly be lovely to be inducted. It would be nice to realize that in my lifetime,” he said. But Sedaka isn’t sitting on his hands waiting for that to happen. He’s too busy performing some 50 concerts a year and initiating a seemingly endless series of music projects.
A biographical musical, Laughter in the Rain, written by Phillip Norman, the biographer of The Beatles and Elton John, debuted in London’s Churchill Theater in March, with Sedaka in attendance and joining the cast on stage for an impromptu curtain call of the title song.
“There are 40 of my songs featured, and there are actors who portray myself, my wife, Howard, Elton and Carole. It’s really exciting to watch. We’re hoping to bring it to the West End and maybe to Broadway. We’re hoping it will be another Jersey Boys,” said Sedaka, referring to the successful show based on the music of The Four Seasons.
While Sedaka never did graduate from Juilliard, he has returned to his classical roots by writing his first symphony and piano concerto, which he’s planning to record with the London Philharmonic in October.
“It’s really full circle for me. I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it, but some friends encouraged me and I’m glad they did,” he said.
And in yet another project taken on in recent years, Sedaka returned to his Coney Island heritage and recorded an album in Yiddish called Brighton Beach Memories – Sedaka sings Yiddish.
I can’t speak Yiddish, but I can sing it very well if it’s written phonetically for me,” he said. “I think the reason I’ve been around this long is the serious musical background, combined with my efforts at continuing to change and reinvent myself. After all, at age 71, you can’t only continue to sing ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’ I still have to excite myself.”
One stimulating event coming up is Sedaka’s return to Israel. He said that despite visiting the country many times over the years as a tourist – most recently bringing his mother for a visit eight years ago – he hasn’t performed here since 1964 “somewhere on a kibbutz near Eilat.”
“It’s a lovely country, and I can’t wait to return,” said Sedaka, promising concert-goers at Nokia a classic performance.
“I’ve had the same band for more than 30 years. We’re very loyal to each other,” he said.
“We do a varied program. We’ll do the songs people know Neil Sedaka for, of course. And I’m going to attempt to sing two songs in Hebrew, which I recorded Hebrew versions of years ago – ‘Oh, Carole’ and ‘You Mean Everything To Me.’ And we’ll be doing new songs that I’ve recently finished writing.”
Because even though his name and his tunes conjure up nostalgia and bygone days, Neil Sedaka is still living for today, writing songs he thinks could be hits the same way “Calendar Girl” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” were. In all aspects, he’s looking ahead.
“In the story you publish, make sure you use a new photo,” he said as a parting shot.
“Don’t get an old one from 1958.”